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Understanding Risk and Protective Factors – Things That Increase or Decrease the Risks of Teen Drug Use

Growing up, some of us are at greater risk to use drugs and alcohol than others. Scientists say that while growing up, we get exposed to things that reduce our odds of getting involved with drugs or alcohol (protective factors) or things that increase the likelihood that we will, as teens, use drug and alcohol (risk factors).

While there are no guarantees in life (and especially in parenting!) research shows that on average, teens who grow up exposed to greater numbers of risk factors are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and to use them at younger ages – and that teens exposed to greater numbers of protective factors are less likely to get involved with drugs and drinking.

Keeping naturally sensation seeking teens away from drug and alcohol experimentation is a tough job for a lot of parents, and in some cases, no matter what you do, your teen will still decide to use or abuse drugs or alcohol; but the good news here is that many of these risk and protective factors are quite controllable, and that you can do a lot to reduce the risks!

Risk Factors (Things That Increase the Odds of Teen Drug and Alcohol Use)

Some people grow up exposed to a slew of risk factors and yet never have a problem with drugs or alcohol, but on average, the greater the number of risk factors, the greater the odds of teen drug and/or alcohol use or abuse.

Risk Factors

  • Growing up in a home where one parent abuses drugs or alcohol or one parent suffers from a mental illness
  • Having a poor attachment bond with parents (parents do not display love or nurturing behaviors to children)
  • Having ineffective parents (parents unable to effectively discipline, monitor behavior and or teach appropriate behavior)
  • Performing poorly at school
  • Hanging around with friends who use drugs or alcohol or otherwise display deviant behaviors
  • Showing early aggression, or being excessively shy in the classroom
  • Having poor social skills
  • Growing up in a family or community that accepts drug or alcohol use as normal and accepted behavior
  • Growing up in a community with easy drug or alcohol availability1

Protective Factors (Things That Reduce a Person’s Risk for Drug Abuse)

While parents may sometimes feel powerless to keep adolescent children safe, research shows that loving and effective parenting makes a great deal of difference.

Protective Factors

  • Having parents that closely monitor the activities of their children and get involved in their lives
  • Having a strong attachment bond with parents and other members of the family
  • Having parents who maintain effective discipline in the home
  • Success at school (ability in math, reading – also commitment to school performance and attachment to teachers at school)2
  • Involvement in school or extracurricular associations
  • Disapproving of drug use 3
  • Having parents that expect their children to go to college and that think a college education is important

Many of these protective factors have been shown to also ’protect’  against risky sexual activities, teen pregnancy, violent behaviors, school drop out and other forms of delinquent acts.

Research Support for Protective Factors

Numerous studies have linked risk and protective factors to variable odds of drug and alcohol use and abuse.

In one study, researchers followed 1000 youths growing up in Rochester New York from grade 7 to grade 11 or 12. All youths were from disadvantaged homes and all were considered ‘high risk’ youths for future drug use.

The researchers measured (counted) protective and risk factors for each study subject and followed up over the years to test for drug use.

They found that:

  • Among teens that had very minimal protective factors (between 0 and 3) only 32% remained drug free within a year from grade 8 and only 20% remained drug free after three years.
  • Among teens who had substantial protective factors (6 or more) 86% remained drug free a year after initial testing in grade 8 and 56% remained drug free after 3 years.4

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